The Queen Can’t Do Anything About Brexit

The suspension of Parliament is outrageous—but it’s all Boris Johnson’s fault.

Queen Elizabeth II welcomes the newly elected leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson on July 24, 2019 in London, England.
Queen Elizabeth II welcomes the newly elected leader of the Conservative party, Boris Johnson on July 24, 2019 in London, England. Victoria Jones/WPA PoolGetty Images

Following a request from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Queen Elizabeth II has prorogued the U.K.’s Parliament—temporarily shutting down the United Kingdom’s deliberative body just weeks before the deadline for a no-deal Brexit hits. The move has caused fury, with Speaker of the House John Bercow calling it a “constitutional outrage” and Ruth Davidson, the extremely popular leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, resigning in protest. Foreign Policy explains just what all this means.

Isn’t this an anti-democratic outrage? How can the queen suspend Parliament?

In reality, the queen isn’t behind the move at all. In British government, the monarch has no real decision-making power whatsoever—they’re a hinge on a door pushed by someone else. Although technically almost every part of British governance, from diplomacy to justice, is done in the name of the crown, the monarch’s role is entirely symbolic. The decision here was made by Johnson, using a power long available to the British prime minister—but never before so blatantly abused for political ends.

The queen suspending Parliament—known as “proroguing”—is normally a routine part of the business of the House of Commons, conducted every spring to allow the parties to hold their annual conferences. But because Britain has been plunged into political crisis since narrowly voting to leave the European Union in a 2016 referendum, Parliament hasn’t been prorogued since then to give time to pass needed legislation.

The most critical part of that legislation—a deal that would set the terms on which the U.K. leaves—hasn’t been passed. Parliament has repeatedly refused previous attempts by former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May to pass her deal, leaving the U.K. facing an automatic no-deal Brexit when the new EU deadline hits on Oct. 31.

That’s what makes Johnson asking the queen to prorogue Parliament so underhanded. Think of something like U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal to even hear the case for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in the Senate: constitutionally possible, entirely legal, but nevertheless spitting in the face of democratic norms. (The U.K. doesn’t have a single written constitution like the United States, but instead has one established through a series of precedents and laws.)

Although Parliament will resume sitting in mid-October, that will leave it just two weeks of debate before the deadline. That narrows members of parliament’s time for the tricky parliamentary maneuvers that might otherwise have limited the terms on which Johnson could conduct Brexit—or even pushed him out of office.

Johnson may be trying to frame a future general election as himself versus Parliament, painting MPs as obstructionists blocking the will of the people. Yet most Brits disagree with the move—and further mass demonstrations seem likely. Other democracies, such as Canada, that use the Westminster system have had political crises over proroguing, but in far less critical times. But it’s entirely on Johnson, not the queen.

So the queen doesn’t have any actual power?

In theory, she has tons of it. She can refuse to give her assent to any law, blocking it like a presidential veto in the United States. She appoints the prime minister. She can make any citizen a life peer, giving them a permanent seat in the House of Lords, Britain’s second legislative chamber.

In practice, she has absolutely none. The power of the British monarchy is pure fiction, and everybody involved acknowledges that. The monarch acts only on the advice of the government and remains studiously politically neutral. Although Elizabeth is known to be particularly devoted to this idea—and exceedingly discreet about whatever political views she personally holds—any future monarch would follow the same rule, just as previous monarchs have done for nearly two centuries.

What would happen if she did use her power?

There would be an enormous political crisis, and one that could very well end the monarchy itself, emboldening Britain’s usually weak republican movement. It’s uncertain whether anyone would actually even follow her if she, say, suddenly decided to appoint a different prime minister or refused to give her assent to a law. There are complicated edge cases, usually involving a recent change of government, that could theoretically result in the monarch using powers untouched for decades. But even then she’d be acting effectively on orders from the prime minister and the government, not of her own volition.

There’s not really any equivalent of the queen’s role in the United States, but perhaps the closest thing is the electors of the Electoral College—not the institution itself, but the actual people who, technically, cast the final vote for who becomes president. That role is in the U.S. Constitution itself—and, in theory, electors are free to choose someone other than whom their state voted for. And they occasionally have—but never in such numbers as to actually alter the result. If they did, it’d be a massive constitutional crisis, just as if the queen refused the will of her government.

Why did the monarchy give up power?

Because the British began the modern European tradition of cutting the king’s head off all the way back in 1649, when they executed King Charles I—mostly for trying to rule without Parliament. Britain was a republic long before France—though the aristocracy then invited Charles’s son, who became King Charles II, back. They followed that up by kicking out his brother and successor, King James II, and inviting a different monarch in instead.

All this meant that by the 18th century, the British monarchy was far more curtailed than its continental equivalents, and the rulers were well aware that things could go very wrong for them. The monarchy was often unpopular—Queen Victoria, later worshipped, was heavily attacked by the Times and other newspapers when she took the throne.

Powerlessness thus seemed a better deal than abolition. That was only reinforced by the 20th century. Consider World War I, when the rulers of Britain, Russia, and Germany were all cousins —but the British king held no actual power, unlike his relatives on the continent. By the end of the war, the Russian tsar and his family had been shot by revolutionaries, the German kaiser was forced into exile, and the British king was still on the throne now held by his granddaughter.

So if the monarchy plays such a basic, apolitical role, why are people suddenly concerned about it?

Brexit has caused a rolling crisis of legitimacy within British government, in which power is uncertain and democratic representation unclear. The referendum on Brexit itself passed by a slim majority—but no clear mandate on how it should be implemented. Perhaps it’s not a surprise that it was a mess; while many countries, such as Switzerland, have a long history of referendums as part of democracy, the United Kingdom has traditionally used them only as advisory tools.

The really tricky thing is that there’s not even a unified position on Brexit itself from either of the two main political parties, the ruling Conservatives or the opposition Labour Party. Both are split on the best way to handle it, though the Conservatives far more so than Labour. On top of that, the Conservatives are a minority government, in power thanks only to a fragile alliance with an extremist Northern Irish party. The sense of legitimacy—that the ruling party represents, albeit imperfectly, the collective will of the people—has thus been badly eroded.

That’s why there’s been a lot of talk of the illegitimacy of Boris Johnson as prime minister, because he was chosen only by a vote of the Tory party membership—about 0.2 percent of the U.K. population. It’s perfectly normal to change prime ministers between general elections; the majority of 20th-century prime ministers came to office that way. Until recently, they were usually selected only by MPs, not even the party membership.

Yet that didn’t cause a loss of legitimacy, because the public had, after all, voted for the party that they represented. With Johnson, though, that feeling has disappeared—because his hard-Brexit position doesn’t even represent a view held by the majority of his fellow MPs or a good percentage of Conservative voters. Some pro-Remain Tory MPs have already left the party, and others are threatening to do so. To top this off, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is also extremely unpopular among the British public. Corbyn has proposed a deal that would leave him a temporary prime minister—but that’s not an appetizing prospect even for some of his own MPs.

Just to rub salt in the wound, the rules governing elections changed under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, which limited the conditions under which prime ministers can call elections—but it is also a badly written law full of potential loopholes.

Given that loss of confidence in the government, it’s no wonder that people have turned to the monarchy, held up by its supporters as a bastion of stability. Because the queen is such a political cipher, she’s an easy backdrop for people to project political fantasies onto. (For the last seven decades, she’s regularly appeared in the literal dreams of the British, after all.) Even with Americans, she’s been the object of bizarre liberal fantasies that imagine she’s snubbing President Donald Trump through her brooch choices.

One of the long-term arguments of monarchists, too, has been that the queen could step in in the event of a crisis of legitimacy like this, throwing her authority behind a compromise solution or a government of national unity. But given the depth of political and national division, this seems as fantastical a prospect as any other, short of a total collapse of government—and even then, it would be hugely controversial.

How long has it been since a monarch actually exercised power?

Arguably William IV, king from 1830 to 1837, was the last to do so, picking a preferred conservative for prime minister over a more liberal candidate backed by parliament. By the later years of his successor Victoria’s long reign, the principle that the monarch accepted the majority party’s recommendation for prime minister rather than exercising their own opinion was well established.

That said, in 1910, King George V effectively threatened to use his power in order to get the Parliament Act passed, which massively curtailed the power of Britain’s unelected second chamber, the House of Lords. Unsurprisingly, most of the lords didn’t want to pass it—and so George, on the urging of his prime minister, threatened to create hundreds of new peers to force its passage. That caused enough of the lords to change their minds that the act passed.

But there’s one other case—not in Britain, but in former colony Australia, which still has the queen as its head of state. In 1975, the governor-general, who acts as the queen’s representative, resolved an ongoing crisis by dismissing left-wing Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and appointing right-wing Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser as head of a brief caretaker government until elections could be held. (Fraser won the resulting elections in a landslide.) “The Dismissal” still sparks fury in left-wing Australians of that generation, but it’s unclear what role Elizabeth herself played in the decision, if any.

So if she doesn’t do anything, what’s the point of having a queen?

There isn’t one, according to Britain’s republicans. The monarchy is an outdated holdover, a relic that ought to be abolished. The queen should be replaced with an elected president, which would probably be a largely ceremonial role with some limited powers to act in times of crisis to ensure stability, as in Ireland or Germany.

But that’s not a popular idea with the British public, which overwhelmingly supports the monarchy. Supporters have a range of arguments, including the case that the monarchy acts as a kind of symbolic first family for the nation—defanging the impulse, so common in the United States, to project those feelings onto politicians, and ensuring neutrality for national awards and ceremonies.

Of course, if the monarchy is the nation’s family, then it’s one looking a bit dodgy right now. Prince William, the second in line to throne, is rumored to have had several affairs. Rather more urgently, Prince Andrew, the queen’s second son, was a good friend of the late pedophile financier Jeffrey Epstein and one of Epstein’s victims says she was forced to have sex with the prince. Perhaps it’s no wonder that Elizabeth doesn’t want to invite another crisis.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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